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Chocolate Milk a Great Recovery Drink? Debunking the 4:1 Muscle-Repairing Myth

By Walter Armstrong

Nine male cyclists ride full out until they're exhausted. They rest for four hours, receiving one of three beverages: Gatorade, Endurox R4, or good, old low-fat chocolate milk. Then they get back on their bikes and resume cycling as long and hard as they can.

The scenario is repeated three times. It's discovered that the cyclists who drank the Gatorade or the milk were able to go 50 percent longer than the Endurox R4 drinkers.

The scientists—yes, this is an actual experiment—publish the results in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. The study, which was funded in part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council, in Indiana, makes headlines around the world. Will this spell curtains for the high-tech, high-priced "performance recovery drink" and a new "sports drink" career for old-time Ovaltine?

Doubtful. But several things about this news are worth attention, starting with the obvious fact that the dairy industry is making a bid to be your post-workout partner. The $4 billion-plus sports-drink market, which was once cornered by Gatorade, has become increasingly competitive. It's cheap! It's natural! It's as American as Mom and apple pie! It gives you a funny mustache! More interesting, however, is the basic science behind the study.

The little experiment confirms (sorta) current knowledge about what intense, sustained exercise does to muscles, causing not only fatigue but also potential damage. It depletes the glucose, a carbohydrate essential to the body's production of energy. That's why a prompt is in order. And until recently it was thought that the best treatment was an infusion of muscle-repairing carbohydrates along with fluids and electrolytes (lost through sweating). That's the formula (plus artificial flavor and awesome color!) that made Gatorade the "Thirst Quencher."

Then sports science took a great leap forward when the famous 4:1 ratio was discovered. Researchers found that upping the carb count and adding some protein—specifically in a ratio of 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein—increased athletic intensity and endurance. And that's the extra edge that Endurox R4 and other "plus protein" sports drinks charge you extra for.

Which brings us back to milk. At some point, the Dairy and Nutrition Council twigged to the fact that their product has the same 4:1 magic "sports fuel" ratio—and ponied up for this study. Still, even their marketers must have been shocked that low-fat chocolate milk proved to be twice as performance-enhancing as Endurox R4. That's doesn't add up biochemically. According to WebMd, the results may be best explained by the fact that the carbs in the milk are better absorbed by the gut than those in the Endurox. But what really has the experts spinning their wheels is Gatorade's surprising tie for first place. Where does that leave the famous 4:1 carb-protein theory on which this entire milk-as-sports-drink strategy is based? The answer, of course, is more studies of more cyclists.

In the meantime, reaching for a tall glass of ice-cold low-fat chocolate milk after your next exhausting workout may be worth a try. Although it won't be everyone's taste, WebMD reports that swimmer Michael Phelps announced at the 2004 Summer Olympics—the one rocked by steroid and doping scandals—that his drug of choice was Carnation Instant Breakfast. And look what it got him: six gold medals.

Got milk? Get a gold medal! Does anyone hear "Million-dollar milk-commercial contract for Mark Phelps"?